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Scenes from Mad Men: “A Tale of Two Cities”

I’ve been a very bad Mad Men recapper. This one’ll be short, but at least I got it in this week.

“A Tale of Two Cities” is one of those necessary gear-shifting episodes of Mad Men. This show tells so many stories, so intricately, that sometimes an entire episode is needed to set the table for bigger things. Such episodes are rarely bad (this one was quite good) but they never rise to the level of Mad Men’s finest hours.

That said, there are certain pairs of characters with too much electricity when paired together to make for uncompelling television. Peggy and Joan are two such characters. One of the pleasures of Mad Men has been observing how little the personality dynamics of the characters shift even as they rise and fall within the hierarchies of SCDP(CGC). Joan and Peggy are both risers of high degrees; Joan from queen bee secretary to partner, Peggy from worker bee secretary to head of creative. And yet these two just can’t help but spar, even if they have a grudging respect for each other. It’s episodes like this that remind us how in touch the show is with its own lineage. Joan pegged Peggy as a naive little thing from the first episode, unaware of the competitive beast Peggles had within the whole time. Peggy, like others have cruelly done so this season, weaponized the fact that Joan slept with head of Jaguar’s accounts (never mind that it wasn’t her idea, she was pressured into it, and the co-partnership with the company was thrown in as incentive; she wasn’t sleeping her way to the top, the partnership was the tradeoff for her). Both Peggy and Joan are capable of needling each other where it hurts most. But at the end of the day, they also both know just how hard it was for the other to get as far as they’ve gotten in this hyper-chauvinistic workplace.

Which is why Peggy bailing out Joan at the end of the episode was so damn satisfying. Peggy is not a spiteful person. In the end, she sympathizes with Joan, because she’s been there: looking for any opportunity to make a move into a world that had previously seemed impossible to approach.

And really, anything done at Pete Campbell’s expense is worth it.

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Liebster Award time!

Well isn’t this just a pile of ice cream sandwiches? Fellow blogger A Splash of Inspiration left me a comment informing me that they had nominated me for a Liebster award. After some research into it, I found it’s a rather adorable tradition designed to spread blogging love around this whole blogging planet. “Liebster” means dearest in German. Again, adorable. As a lover of adorable things, I’m all too happy to participate.

Apparently the rules are quite simple:

  • You are chosen for the award by another blogger, which then makes you the next judge.
  • If you are selected, do a little fist pump. Then, if you want, list 11 facts about yourself, and answer five questions that the blogger who nominated you provided. If you don’t want to, that’s cool.
  • After selection, you can, if you please, select five other bloggers you admire to receive the award. The only stipulation is that they have fewer than 200 followers. Provide them with five questions.
  • Let them know of their Liebster in a comment on their blog, and spread the love!
  • No tagbacks. I’m not sure what that means, but everyone who posts Liebsters mentions this, so I am too.

Also, you get to use this sweet badge:

Libester!                                                                        (source)

Sounds easy, right? Let’s begin:

11 Facts about myself

  1. The first movie I remember seeing in a theatre was “Aladdin”.
  2. I have a deep love for bubblegum pop music. I think Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Kiss” is a perfect album.
  3. The film I’ve seen more than any other is “The Lion King”. I don’t know the exact number but it’s north of forty viewings (most during the summer of 1995 on video).
  4. I’ve seen “Princess Mononoke” 21 times. After the first 20, I swore not to watch it again until I could see it in a theatre for the first time. That dream came true last summer, after three years of waiting.
  5. My holy trinity of favorite films is “Princess Mononoke”, “Three Colors: Red” and “Children of Men”.
  6. Non-film facts: I like coffee on two extremes: dark roasts taken black, or loaded to the brim with cream and sugar until it more resembles a milkshake.
  7. My favorite Sailor Scout is Mercury. Everyone has a favorite Sailor Scout. You do too.
  8. My favorite movie pastime is convincing non-horror fans that the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is one of the best films of the 1970s. And I mean that without any qualifications. It’s an incredible film.
  9. My favorite spot in the world is the balcony of Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square
  10. I have crooked index fingers that form a “V” when I try to put them together.
  11. When I was 13 I won my local library’s summer reading club and I still keep the trophy by my computer at all times.

5 questions from A Splash of Inspiration:

If you could blog about anything else in the world, what would it be and why?

Baseball. I dabbled in baseball blogging for a few months a few years ago but I consistently found that there were simply better writers writing about the exact same topics, and I preferred reading them to trying to match them. With film and TV, I’m better able to approach topics from an angle that is very much my own. But I probably know more about baseball than I do anything else, and I’m much more confident in my writing now than I used to be.

How did you initially get interested in the topic that you blog about?

Well, I’ve been interested in movies since I was a teenager. I honed my skills writing about them on a message board that I joined when I was 13 and still post on occasion. In recent years, I’ve developed a passion for applying critical thinking to my views on pop culture. I like being able to clearly describe why I arrive at my opinions in a way that can spur discourse.

Sike! That URL is taken and your site’s name is copyrighted.  Now you have to change your site’s name and web address. What will it be and why?

The Burly Bard. My brother thought it up the other day and I thought it was awesome. It applies to me (I’m burly and I sing) and immediately made it the name of my Tumblr.

This is your last post ever. What would you address in it?

It’d have to be my Reviewing Ghibli entry to Spirited Away, the movie that made me fall in love with movies.

You have to pick one specific topic (it can’t be too general like “movies”) to blog about for an entire month. What topic would you choose and why did you choose it?

I’ve actually done stuff like this before, and I know what it’d be: Analyzing, shot for shot, the opening scenes of horror films. In October, of course. Overanalyzing pop culture is one of my favorite pastimes, and I think it’s important to be able to discuss the visual language of the movies.

Now, it’s time for me to nominate five more blogs for this exercise. Drumroll please:

Soul Conversations

My good friend Nicole has a poetry blog. She’s great and very cool person and I know she loves adorable things even more than I do. There’s no “no friend” rule on this, so she gets dibs.

Cinema Enthusiast

One of the first film blogs I found on WordPress and still one of the best. The sheer rate of output on this blog puts mine to shame, and the reviews are consistently excellent.

Joshua Hoffine Horror Photography

I’m breaking the followers number rule here a bit. Hoffine has a hair more than 300 followers, and he deserves more. His horror photography is some of the finest horror work in any medium today. Brilliant, gory, and often legitimately scary, he is a master at blending the stuff of childhood nightmares with modern, adult horror tropes into a giant, bloody phantasmagoria of images.

SiroSoup

A very charming blog with a focus on Anime and cosplay (both the cosplay community and making the actual costumes). In the handful of conventions I’ve been to, I’ve just been transfixed by the costumes and the energy radiating from the time and energy put into making them, and this blog definitely captures that feeling that makes conventions fun.

The Stock Pot Inn

Is it cheating to nominate two people whom I know? I’m nominating this blog because its writer, Nate, is not only a good friend of mine but a very good writer whose views on video games display a critical eye and a voice that conveys the experience of playing a game, qualities that are sorely lacking in the world of gaming writing.

Finally, my five questions:

  1. Well, drat. Aliens have invaded Earth and, while they’re cool with humanity and all that, they just really really hate all our media. By sheer fate and Hollywood writing, you have the chance to save one piece of electronic, pop culture media. It can be an album, a film, a season of television, or a video game. Which one do you choose and why? Don’t worry about books, by the way. The aliens are down with books.
  2. What was the first movie that gave you a nightmare?
  3. I often describe “Spirited Away” as the most significant film for me personally, because when I watched it for the first time, it felt like it a movie that was tailor-made just for me. What was your first experience like that, watching, reading, or listening to something, and being overcome by how it seemed like it was made with you and your specific tastes in mind? Again, all forms of pop culture are eligible.
  4. You wake up and the Spirit of Story is about to teleport you to live forever in a fictional land from a story. Because you caught it in the act, it cuts you a bargain and lets you choose the location. Where do you go? Any fictional location works, including fictional towns in otherwise real countries (like Lovecraft’s New England gallery of rogues) Keep in mind though, you’ll be spending the rest of your days here.
  5. Burger or Pizza?

Scenes from Mad Men: The Crash

Source: sheissoft-sheiswarm.tumblr.com/

I just realized that I never wrote an entry for this week. Then I realized that there was no purpose trying to make sense of a damn thing in this nutty episode. Also, writing one whilst attending Anime Boston would prove too strenuous a task than I an willing to undertake. So here’s a gif of Stan preparing to have his arm shish-kebabed by an exactoknife.

Scenes from Mad Men: “Man With a Plan”

Don Draper isn’t used to getting dumped. And when he is, he takes it more badly than most.

Even though his marriage to Betty had long fallen apart by the time she called it quits, but her leaving him sent him reeling, not stopping until he hit the lowest point we’ve ever seen Don reach. Other than that, Don has been far too aloof with his feelings to develop a romantic attachment that would wreck him like that again, Peggy’s departure from SCDP last season broke through his armor in a way that few things can. He hemmed and hawed and belittled her accomplishments at first, before finally accepting her resignation with mournful kiss on her hand.

With his many extramarital dalliances, Don has deliberately distanced himself from his partners. For Don, sex is a way to exert control over his life in ways he cannot in marriage and at work. After giving monogamy a try in season 5, Don has reverted back to his cheatin’ ways with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini, who has been superb in the role), his upstairs neighbor. But unlike his other mistresses, Sylvia seems much more on level terms with Don. In the game of infidelity, they’re on equal terms, with both Don’s and Sylvia’s spouses a floor away at any given coupling. We don’t know the origin of their meeting, and it’s entirely plausible that she initiated the affair. Like Don, she’s unhappy with a spouse who appears to otherwise be a perfectly swell human being. Her one difference from Don, however, is what she gets out of the affair. When Don, in a dominant sexual roleplay, tells her “you are in this room for my pleasure”, the line is ironic (and cringe-inducing, but mainly ironic). Sylvia is in this far more for pure pleasure than Don is. She enjoys master-servant game for a bit, clearly turned on at first. But when Don won’t let up on it, forcing her to remain a prisoner in a hotel room on his whims, she grows tired of it, his taking her copy of “The Last Picture Show” being the last straw. Tellingly, she isn’t disturbed or disgusted. She’s a grown up. She tells Don that playtime is over. She has more important things to do.

For Don, the roleplay seemed to be an extension of his battle for control in the workplace. For Don, work is as much a source for pleasure as sex, and the office has gotten far too complex for his tastes since his impromptu merger with ex-rival Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Ted Chaough shows up as co-partner at the office and doesn’t even need a damn chair in Board of Director’s meeting. Don tries to pull the same power play on Ted that he pulled on Roger in season 1, drinking him into a stupor as a dick-measuring contest. Ted calls Don’s booze and raises him by flying them both to meet a client in his personal plane. Ted rocks the aviators while Don sheepishly holds on for dear life and reads the book he stole from Sylvia.

(source)

Don’s been in far lower, darker places than this, but he’d rather be perpetually high, and when the workplace doesn’t do the job, the bedroom has to double the order.

For Don, his dominant bravado in this episode was not just a fantasy. It was his trying to keep from slipping into another stupor. When Sylvia said she needed him, it energized him in a way we’ve only seen once more this season-  when he conjured the merger with Ted out of thin air and landed Chevy as a result. But Don needed Sylvia far more than she needed him. She’s had her fun with Don. She’s ready to move on with her life. Don had no plan B. He really had no plan at all. He couldn’t have expected his affair with Sylvia to last forever. But when she said goodbye, all he could do was kiss her hand, and disappear back into the haze of his own mind.

(featured photo source)

Scenes from Mad Men: “To Have and To Hold”

I had a lot of fun last year taking single scene from the latest “Mad Men” and picking it apart. Why not bring it back, while the season is still young?

There were a bunch of contenders this week, but none quite as potent for me as Don showing up at Megan’s soap opera shoot and tormenting her about her makeout scene.

Don has always been a blazing hypocrite when it comes to fidelity. He continually cheated on Betty, and then furiously called her a “whore” when she left him. After spending season 5 giving monogamy a try, he’s back to his wandering-dick ways this year, carrying on an affair with his neighbor Sylvia (played by Linda Cardinelli.

Mad Men has never been very subtle with its themes. Its pleasures are derived from Matthew Wiener’s immense creativity in implementing these themes in a way that’s consistently engrossing and very entertaining, even if the characters are often rather terrible people.

And while Don has worn every manner of mask on the show, rarely has he pulled so blatant a heel turn as when he shows up on the set of his wife’s soap opera, something he has apparently never done before, for the sole purpose of tearing her apart backstage for the sin of filming a love scene that she had warned him about already. He’s even about to drop the “Wh” bomb on his wife before she stops him. Of course, he then goes back home and has sex with Sylvia. Again, Mad Men is frequently anything but subtle.

Don’s tirade at Megan is not the sudden outburst it seems to her, however. He is reeling from a huge blow on the business side of his life. After an ad pitch for Heinz ketchup that bears all the hallmarks of a classic Draper sale (a bold design and some classic Don appeals to sentimentality that he doesn’t believe in himself for a second), his old protege Peggy swoops in with a pitch of her own that is even more classic Don than Don is capable of pulling off anymore. She lands the deal, a deal that the old suits and SCD (RIP, P) never saw coming. For Don (and Stan, who leaked that Heinz ketchup was open to new suitors to Peggy, never thinking she’d act on it) Peggy’s act is a betrayal. By business standards, it was common sense.

Perhaps this is what triggers Don’s fury at Megan. He had given her his hesitant assurance that he won’t complain about her kissing another man on camera. But in his anger, he says Megan’s biggest sin wasn’t the kiss, but that she enjoyed it.

And, well, she did. She’s an actress, and it was a big moment for her. And Peggy clearly enjoyed her stealth takedown of her own boss, if only because she’s so damn competitive, and she showed him just how good she’s gotten at this game. As a businessman, Don can’t take his rage out on Peggy, not anymore. So he turns the fire to Megan.

There’s a surprisingly poignant moment at the very end of the episode when Don and Sylvia are about to have sex, and Don notices her crucifix. He asks her to remove it. He’s not comfortable with the symbol of old-world morality, and the possibility that it means something to Sylvia, something that might become a distraction to her down the road perhaps. He asks if she prays for absolution. In earnest, she replies that she prays that he finds peace. Good luck with that, Don Draper.

Megan is as devoted to Don as any married person on this show is capable of being. But she’s not his confidant. The last person who could bring Don peace was Peggy. She had become his surrogate of confidence after the death of his beloved Anna. And with Peggy out of his life in that regard, he is lost again. And it’s poor Megan who bears the brunt of that disillusionment.

note: upon reading Alan Sepinwall’s review of the episode, it seems I was mistaken in saying that Peggy’s pitch was successful. I missed this somehow.

The best of “Cowboy Bebop”… and “Adventure Time”: Speak Like a Child and I Remember You

Spoilers for “Adventure Time” and “Cowboy Bebop” ahead.

It’s a gambit I never realized existed in television: lead the audience along in an episode that appears nonsensical, and then blindside them with an emotional revelation of massive magnitude. After seeing last week’s stellar Adventure Time episode “I Remember You”, easily one of the best the show has ever done, I realized I’ve seen it appear now on two of my favorite shows. I also realized how difficult it is to pull off well. A show like Adventure Time has an easier go of it, I imagine, because it can be so difficult to predict how its plots are going to resolve in a usual episode. But still, for the final emotional twist not to be cheap, the subsequent scenes of indeterminate significance need to also be elevated by the ending. That’s exactly how Adventure Time made “I Remember You” an instant classic.

The buildup to the end seemed like an excuse to have Marceline and The Ice King interact. They’re arguably the show’s two most prominent supporting players not named Bonnibel Bubblegum. The lead up seemed a tad gimmicky (two major characters who had never interacted coupled with singing), but with potential for something really funny, perhaps combining the Ice King’s lunacy with Marceline’s uber-chaotic neutrality.

The show found the perfect tone, however, as soon as it entered Marceline’s domain. Her annoyance with the Ice King wasn’t the typical reaction of, say, the many princesses he continually kidnaps. As soon as she made her weariness, but not contempt, for him clear, the episode began to show its hand. Or seemed to.

Yes, it became clear that Marceline knew the Ice King once, and the audience had to assume that this was before the Mushroom War (since these are the two oldest characters on the show, and the two we knew had lived before the war). Despite leading us in that direction, the ending was an emotional blindside, not a plot-based one. That’s a large part of why it worked so damn well. Adventure Time can’t really surprise us with plot developments, because almost nothing is a surprise on this show, which has had episodes end with Tree Trunks exploding, a giant worm mentally subjugating Finn and Jake, an angry squirrel assassinating them, and (my favorite) the apparent murder of Marceline’s dickish ex-boyfriend. However, it can catch us by surprise emotionally, by generating genuine pathos when we’ve come to expect plain ole’ laughs. The best comedies are able to balance the laughs by occasionally having episodes that are light on comedy but heavy on character development and, usually, heartstring tugging. These deepen the show, letting see the person behind the curtain, getting to know them a little bit better. The contrast between Marceline’s disarming vulnerability and genuine heartache and the Ice King’s oblivious drumming was pathos most sitcoms don’t dare go near, let alone a comedic cartoon. Few moments on TV this year will earn quite so many well-deserved tears as this one.

The flashback-as-emotional-wallop ending of this episode reminded me of one of the best episodes of my all-time favorite show: “Cowboy Bebop”.

I’m talking about the splendid “Speak Like a Child”, the episode that brought to the emotional forefront what had been something of a stealth arc to that point: the exploration of Faye Valentine’s past. Faye, who at a cynical glance might seem to exist to provide Bebop with a supply of fanservice, ends up being one of the show’s most endearing characters, and that is thanks largely to this episode. Like Marceline, she’s a detached, mildly amoral person who hides a deeply vulnerable side. And like Marceline, her past is mysterious to the audience, with many unanswered questions. The key difference with Faye is that she has no memory of her childhood. That fact is key to episode’s impact.

Like “I Remember You,” “Speak Like a Child’s” story seems off for the most part. The Bebop crew gets a tape. They need a beta player to play it. Jet and Spike explore ruins on earth to find one. It’s an amusing, dry episode for the most part, one that seems unusually aimless for a show that is normally so focused and lean, and especially unusual for a show that was just a few episodes from its end.

But the ending… good Lord. It completely alter’s Faye, in the audience’s eyes, in the Bebop crew’s eyes, and most importantly, in Faye’s own eyes. Her arc ends up delivering some of the most moving scenes in Bebop’s last few episodes, and those scenes tie directly back to the revelations in this Scene. It’s also beautiful and heartbreaking, like Marceline and the Ice King’s duet, and, well… I’ll let it speak for itself.

How to argue: a quick checklist for internet kerfuffles

The internet is not the most ideal location for good discourse. Most disagreements quickly devolve into kneejerk defensiveness, name-calling, and far, far worse. The great Monty Python sketch, “The Argument Clinic” was quite prophetic.

Establishing a definite proposition on the internet through argument can be such an achievement as to earn consideration for sainthood. And that’s sad. As I said in my last post, critical thinking is very important to me, even in regards to pop culture. It’s crucial that we be able to consider every aspect, positive and negative, of the art we love, and not simply reject, resent, threaten to murder, and bombard with pornography the Wikipedia pages of those who present ideas that we disagree with.

So I’ve compiled a basic checklist of what I try to consider when arguing.

1: Is the other person’s argument patently offensive?

Sorry dudes, “She’s a feminist and that bothers me” doesn’t cut it. For this step, I’m talking things like “I think puppy-stabbing is a fun, productive activity for all ages”. When the argument transcends political, social, religious, and every other kind of belief, it’s not an argument. The other person is probably trolling and isn’t worth the effort.

2: Am I incapable of being rational with this topic?

This can cover a wide range of territory. On one end, I think “Princess Mononoke” is the best film I’ve ever seen, and I’m not all that interested in hearing negative opinions about it. That’s all on me. Doesn’t make anyone who hates it wrong. It’s one of a few films I’m not rational about.

On a more serious note, this is also the reason juries are vetted and Supreme Court judges are subject to brutal interviews before the Senate. Their abilities to be completely rational and uncompelled by emotion are vital to the law (at least in theory).

On the internet, no one’s compelling you to argue but yourself. If the topic is so close to home that rationality goes flying, acknowledge that before going forward, and at consider cooling down beforehand.

3: Having decided to argue, are my problems with the other person’s argument visceral or logical?

My unscientific estimate is that 91.87 percent of internet arguments are visceral, driven by the guts (often the bowels, looks like) rather than the brain. And that’s fine… to an extent. While everyone vents now and then, it’s important to recognize when we’re venting, and when we’re simply attacking someone without really considering their logic.

Quick rule: if your immediate response to someone’s argument is something like “Well, that doesn’t apply to me so it must be wrong!” or “How dare you go after [insert medium or work of art you love here]!” you’re being visceral, not logical. Of COURSE it doesn’t have to apply to you. Odds are, the author didn’t have you specifically in mind when they wrote their thoughts. So their lack of application to you doesn’t automatically render it false. Likewise, critical thinking about the things you love IS ALWAYS GOOD. Either way, you are simply getting defensive. And yes, that’s a normal feeling to have, and that’s fine. But responding in kind, while an understandable desire and action, is not a valid argument.

4: Am I relying… at all… on logical fallacies to maintain my argument?

Another quick rule: the moment you use a logical fallacy, you lose the argument. It’s like a boxer trying to win with a groin kick. They have no place in discourse. Of course, many arguments consist ENTIRELY of logical fallacies (for a comprehensive list of fallacies, click here).

Some common offenses:

The Straw Man: Intentionally misrepresenting your opponent or an opposing position to prove a point.

False equivalence: Insinuating an opposing point has equal validity, when it doesn’t.

Ad Hominem: Attacking the opponent, not their argument.

Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” In other words, please, please don’t evoke Nazis, unless it’s a historical discussion of Nazism or Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. For political discussions, I’d add Communism to the mix as well. If you ever, ever do this, you lose the argument. Them’s the rules.

It’s amazing how many arguments would never happen if this mental checklist were applied beforehand. I imagine a lot of them wouldn’t even get past the first couple of steps. The last step, however, is the most common offender for any touchy internet topic. Look, it’s no coincidence that this post follows my last one. I’ve never seen an anti-feminist rant on the internet that passed any of these mental tests, and most consist entirely of the last one.

Look, in this great country of ours, you can say what you please and not give a crap what I or anyone else thinks about it. But if you don’t want to write something that would embarrass you in 10 years, at least run these through your mind before hitting “post”.

Because a lot of the time, when you’ve applied these standards and have nothing valid to say, the other person’s argument still stands. And in that case, maybe it’s worth giving them the time of day. Maybe, just maybe, what they said pissed you off because it challenged you, not because it was wrong. And no one is ever always correct. At some point, we all encounter ideas that challenge how we think, and force us to reconsider our positions. Arguing should be one way to help us recognize those ideas, and not simply a way to reaffirm our same old thoughts.

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